I can’t believe I’m in this grocery store, buying sriracha sauce again.
We must go through two bottles a week lately.
Between Grant’s addiction to spice and Ros complaining about how bland the food is at the medical center and begging her big sister to bring her something better to eat even if technically it’s against the rules of her program, we’re in a condiment crisis.
Well, since she’s doing her best, I’m not going to deny her a little fire-breath.
Not when I’m so glad to have her back—and lucky that Redhaven has a rehab ward so I can still visit every day. Even if ‘ward’ is a bit of a stretch when it’s technically just one big room at the medical center, and that room is currently occupied by Ros while she gets past the worst of detox.
It’s been a heart-wrenching few weeks.
She’ll be out and on home watch soon enough, but until then, you can bet her big sister’s on contraband food duty.
It feels like my life revolves around caring for other people lately, and that’s okay.
Making sure Grant eats enough every day.
Bundling Nell up and taking her to and from school with a handmade lunch on weekdays.
Stopping by to feed Ros something with real flavor, check on her progress, then going to see Mom. So far, she’s doing better, even if she hasn’t woken up again.
The doctors say she could come around any day. Against all odds, the experimental chemo’s working.
Her body is slowly rebuilding itself, instead of dangling over a bottomless pit by a thinning thread held together by endless rounds of therapies.
I’m still taking care of the shop, too. Nobody’s Bees-Ness will still be around whenever she wakes up, just waiting for her, whatever she decides to do with the store.
Also, I still need to figure out what to do with my life. What’s going to be my life’s work as this strange and stormy chapter comes to an end and a new one begins.
But for now, I’m content with where I am, one day at a time.
Taking care of everyone by daylight and warming Grant’s bed at night.
Yes, I’m blushing like I’ve downed a whole spoon of sriracha myself as I toss a few more bottles in my basket for the pantry and move on.
We were barely apart and quasi-broken up, yet here we are devouring each other like we have years of lost time to make up for.
Maybe we do.
All those lonely years when I could’ve been here with him, instead of running from my past and abandoning my home. Trying to carve out a new life in another state that was always missing its biggest pieces.
Back then, I wasn’t ready to face him.
Our feelings were confused whispers then. They easily would’ve been crushed and silenced forever under the weight of grieving Ethan, back when it was still so fresh and killing.
How could we have loved through the bruises?
How does anyone with an acid pain wearing away their hearts?
We both needed to heal.
Now, for the first time, I feel like I’m no longer suffocating. Healing might look like scar tissue, but we’re stronger than ever.
We needed that time.
Time apart to let the pain settle until true love could stand on its own in the fresh light of a brand-new day.
And now that I’ve found Grant again, I never want another day away from him for the rest of my life.
I’m pretty sure my thoughts are written all over my face and everyone can see them.
Though I’m probably being too self-conscious about it, reading too much into the curious glance of the checkout girl and everyone I pass on the streets as I finish running errands and head back to Grant’s house—home.
It really is.
He’s made it so clear he wants me to stay.
I go to work happily in the kitchen. A couple hours later, there’s a spicy lasagna slow-baking in the oven next to a version I can actually stomach without my gut catching fire.
By the time I blow through the house, tidying up and showering, the lasagna’s ready.
I cut off a huge chunk and drop it into a Tupperware container, leaving the rest in the oven to stay warm, then head out into the icy late afternoon wind to make my way over to the medical center, humming contentedly under my breath.
It’s so strange to break out of this holding pattern I’ve been in for so long.
It’s bizarre to actually feel alive for the first time in ages.
But it also leaves me bursting and bright, feeling cheerful enough to warm me against the cold, even if I’m cursing myself once again for not picking up a coat as winter muscles in, promising the first snow.
That coat always slips my mind every time I’m out shopping.
I’m grateful for the burst of warm air as I step into the lobby. The nursing staff wave me through, familiar with my daily visits by now, including pointedly pretending not to see the container tucked under my arm and shielded with my body.
We share a subtle smile.
They get it.
Back when I was a nurse, I looked the other way on things like that all the time.
When I get to Ros’ room, I’m surprised to find it empty.
Her bed’s still disarrayed and her clothes are in the dresser, so she’s around somewhere, I guess.
Frowning, I walk over to the nurses’ station and offer a smile to the woman behind the computer.
“Hey, Brandy,” I say. “Have you seen Rosalind? I’m just dropping in to keep her company before she makes you pull your hair out.”
Brandy glances up at me, blinks, and does a double take. A huge smile curls her lips.
“Ophelia! I was just about to call you.”
I blink back at her.
Common sense tells me that smile can’t be bad news, but my heart turns into an anxious little knot anyway.
“Yeah? What’s up?”
“About Ros,” Brandy says, almost slyly. “You might want to check your mother’s room.”
It takes a minute for what she means to really click.
But when it hits me—
I’m barely aware of dropping the lasagna container on the desk like a brick.
I turn so fast I almost fall over.
My lungs are about to burst as I sprint down the hall.
Hope floods me, a fragile thing that could break again so easily, but please, oh please—
I nearly slam into the door of Mom’s room face-first as I go sliding in.
For a frozen second, I’m staring in disbelief.
I stand there with my chest heaving and my eyes filling up with the most wonderful tears.
There she is.
My mother, sitting up in bed, her cheeks flushed with life, her eyes open.
She’s never looked happier as her fingers tangle with Ros’. My sister buries her face in our mom’s shoulder and sobs.
The choked sounds rise over everything inside me right now.
“Mom,” I whisper, the only sound I can make.
Then it’s my turn.
I start bawling like a baby as my mother looks up, meets my eyes, and beams her too-bright smile right at me.
Her free arm stretches toward me.
I practically throw myself into the tangle of my family until we’re just a mess of happy hugs, grateful tears, sniffles, and incoherent words.
Holy hell, it’s not a dream!
She’s still weak and frail and recovering, sure, but she’s alive.
And so is Ros.
I never let either of them go.
Thank God I didn’t.
“I was so scared,” I rasp, burying my face in Mom’s shoulder. “I was so scared for you, Mama.”
“I know you were, baby,” she says, kissing my hair. “I know you both were. But I can’t go anywhere just yet. I know when my girls need me and I had to stay to take care of you.”
That’s enough to trigger a new cascade of tears.
We’re like that for a while, just the three of us and enough sweet relief bursting out of us to make a statue cry.
By the time the emotional bubble breaks, I’m worn out. Ros looks just as tired as she sits up, wiping at her eyes with a frayed laugh.
“Wow. Never thought we’d be rooming right down the hall from each other,” she tells Mom. “At the rate you’re going, you’ll be out of here before I am.”
Mom squeezes Ros’ hand.
“Stay as long as you need, baby,” she says, glowing with the warmth of motherly love. “As long as you take care of yourself.”
“You told her?” I catch my sister’s eye.
Ros nods sheepishly. “Well, yeah. She deserved to know.”
“That’s right,” Mom says firmly. “Just because I’m laid up doesn’t mean I’m not here to support you girls like always.” Then her eyes darken and she glances between me and Ros regretfully. “So, I guess the secret’s out.”
My heart pinches as Mom’s heavy eyes meet mine.
“You’ll never know how sorry I am that I never told you girls everything.” She sighs. “I just wanted to close that rotten chapter of my life so much… I never imagined the trouble it would cause later on.” Her eyes glitter with approval as she looks at me. “Thank you, Ophelia. Thank you for looking out for your little sister—for protecting her where I failed.”
“Mom, no.” I grip hard at her thin fingers. “You didn’t fail. You got sick. But it all turned out okay in the end.”
“There’s nothing time won’t heal. We’ll be fine,” Ros adds, clearing her throat. But Mom, I have to ask… What happened? Like, how did you end up with him?”
“Oh, that.” Mom smiles sadly. “Dredging up these old memories, it feels like someone else’s life. It was so long ago. I wish I had a better answer. I was different then, too young and hopeful. Too stupid, maybe—is there really any difference?”
Ros and I shake our heads.
Her smile turns grim.
“You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to right now,” I say.
“No, Ophelia. You both deserve the truth after the ordeal you’ve been through.” Mom strokes her thumb over the back of my hand. “If you want someone to blame, you’re looking at her. There’s no excuse, but I was so lonely after my husband died, loves. Zachary had my heart first. I didn’t know how to get over him. I was an open wound, lost and confused, pining away after a ghost all the time. Men like Montero Arrendell can smell vulnerability. I think…” she sighs again, wetting her lips. “I think he enjoyed how fragile my heart was when I was so desperate to be loved again. He enjoyed toying with me.”
My breath catches and I squeeze Mom’s hand.
“And then when I got pregnant with you, Ophelia… he distanced himself like a boy moving onto his next shiny thing,” she continues. “Of course, I didn’t let that stop me from sending him secret love letters. There was a woman at the house, a maid, Cora Lafayette.” Her eyes soften. “Such a sweet lady, not much older than me. She always looked at me with sympathy, like she understood. She’d help sneak my letters in. They weren’t always love letters, exactly, especially as time went on. But since he had a daughter, I thought he should know how you were doing.”
God, that makes me feel hollow.
I don’t even know how I’ll look at any Arrendell ever again without exploding in their face.
Though I won’t be surprised if Aleksander’s gruesome aftermath sends them out of town for a good long while. Maybe out of country.
Fine by me.
It’s too strange, knowing this man I’ve only seen from a distance my entire life, who was just part of the landscape of Redhaven, is the reason I exist.
A fact so revolting it chokes me up.
He’s always known so much about me.
All this time, he knew.
He saw me, he knew I was his daughter, peeking in at my life through these hidden windows my mother gave him.
“But what about me?” Ros asks. “If you stopped seeing him after you got pregnant with Ophelia?”
Mom goes quiet, her eyes pointed down.
“We didn’t stop entirely,” she finally whispers. “There was a lull, perhaps a few years. Then suddenly, somehow, he was desperate for me again. Instead of a quiet, comforting thing in the wake of my grief, it was a passionate affair that made me feel young and beautiful again.” With a hurt laugh, Mom tucks her wispy hair behind her ear. “Maybe that’s why the two of you are smarter. One the soft, steady girl with such deep emotions she couldn’t hold them in forever…” She casts an affectionate look at Ros before she turns to me. “And the other, my little firecracker, so much bravery and passion under her skin.”
Ros’ eyes well up again, and our mom smooths her hair back and kisses her brow.
And I realize then that maybe some of what happened with Aleksander wasn’t just his sick, hypnotic influence or the drugs.
Maybe my shy, prim sister really did want to break out of her shell.
It’s just gut-wrenching that Aleksander took advantage of that feeling, just as his—our—father took advantage of Mom’s loneliness.
Some bad habits run in the family, I guess.
So does bad luck.
There’s still one lingering question, though, and I frown.
“What made you stop sending the letters? I read them all.”
“There are so many things that came to a head, I think. The fact that he never even acknowledged receiving the letters, for one, on all the nights we spent together. Little by little, I began to see his other side. His callousness, his cruelty. His truth, shining through the cracks of his wealth and intelligence and perfection. I was getting tired of being someone’s dirty little secret, and then—” She bites her lip. “Then we lost Ethan. And I knew—I knew there were questions about his sons. Your brothers. And Montero saw my grief. He wouldn’t even speak to me about it. Wouldn’t even let me ask him why. He made me realize I was no use to him if I wasn’t gratifying his appetites. One day, I woke up and refused to do that any longer. If he ever wanted to be a father to you girls, I told him he could speak to me then, but otherwise to stay the hell out of my life.”
“And he never did, did he?” I ask softly, touching the back of her hand. “That was it. It was always just us… and he went back to his gold tower.”
“Yes,” she says. “But I wouldn’t dare give up the gifts he gave me for the world. He gave me two angels, and I’ve never been lonely since the day you girls were born.”
“Oh my God, stop,” I gasp, wiping my eye with a shaky laugh. “I’m going to start sobbing again.”
“Well, in my humble opinion, Montero Arrendell can fuck right off,” Ros flares, shaking her head harshly. “Wait, should I call him Dad? Dad. Dad can fuck off.”
My laugh comes out stronger this time.
“You do you, Ros. I’m never calling him Dad. No tearful family reunions for us.”
“I don’t know.” Frowning, Ros gives me a puzzled look. “Should we? I mean, do you want to say anything to him? Do we want to tell him we know?”
“What good would it do?” I ask bitterly. “Do you really want him as a father now? I don’t. I want absolutely nothing to do with that man.”
I mean every cutting word.
Call it impulsive, but now that I know the truth about our family, about who my father is?
I wish I didn’t.
I don’t want him in my life.
I don’t want excuses or apologies or explanations—if a stone-cold prick like him ever had it in him to offer any at all.
More than anything, I just want him gone.
After Aleksander went after Ros and Nelly, after the questions with Ethan, after the appalling damage they’ve done to this town, I just want to escape the Arrendells’ stain.
I want to see all their ugly secrets and crimes come spilling out, and I want them to pay dearly.
I want a life untouched by their pain.
Give me distance.
Such a huge, gaping chasm between us and them that I can live a normal life and blissfully forget that I share their toxic blood.
Ros wrinkles her nose. “He saw me with Aleksander. He knew, and he didn’t try to stop it at all. He could’ve told me the truth any time. So, no. I don’t even want to remember I’m related to… to those people.” She chokes on the last two words.
To Aleksander, she means.
I can’t blame her.
Honestly, I’ve never been happier my sister is so committed to waiting until marriage.
“Then it’s settled,” I say. “We keep our distance. We don’t acknowledge him. He won’t acknowledge us, and we live our best lives apart. The prick obviously never cared, anyway.”
“But he kept the letters…” Ros points out slowly.
Which raises another question that makes me shake my head.
“That’s what’s so weird to me. Mom, you gave those letters to Cora, right? So how did Mason Law wind up with them?”
“Mason Law?” Mom purses her lips. “I don’t rightly know, dear. I didn’t know him.”
“I do,” a voice says in a bearish growl at my back. My heart flutters. “Hi, Angela. It’s damn good to see you awake. Am I interrupting?”
I have to force myself to move slowly as I turn to face Grant.
He stands in the doorway in a full crisp uniform, handsome as ever in the trim lines of navy blue-black outlining the hard-cut of his figure underneath.
Mom brightens instantly.
I’d bet I’m wearing the same look, only ten times more intense.
“Grant!” she gushes. “Aren’t you a handsome sight? Have you proposed to my daughter yet while I was out?”
“Mom!” I cough. “You were out for a few weeks. Not ten years…”
“Not yet,” Grant answers bluntly.
There go my insides again.
He’s just too good at scrambling them without even breaking a sweat.
Because not yet means that someday, he just might.
And he gives me a lazy, knowing smile, before sobering as he says, “Must be something in the air today setting things right. I’ve just been talking with Mr. Law and I’ve learned some things you ladies ought to know.”